It’s still early days in Colorado’s 2019-20 snowpack season, with winter not even officially starting until next Saturday, but snowfall levels so far are off to a decent start.
Statewide, snowpack was at 122% of median statewide Friday, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Mother Nature has been consistently generous around the state, with snowpack levels ranging from 109% of median in the Gunnison River Basin to 128% in the South Platte Basin.
The Colorado and Upper Rio Grande river basins were both at 114% of median Friday; the Arkansas River Basin, 115%; the Yampa/White basins, 127%; and river basins in southwest Colorado, 121%.
Those numbers were released prior to the arrival of additional snow forecast to continue in the region through the weekend.
Aldis Strautins, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, is happy to see the current snowfall levels, although he cautioned that numbers can jump around quite a bit this time of year thanks to just a couple of storms, or a lack thereof.
“We like to wait until we get into the January timeframe to show how the (weather) patterns are looking and how things are shaping up,” he said.
The early snow is helpful to the ski industry in ensuring resorts can open in a timely fashion. As of Wednesday, Colorado Ski Country USA was reporting that 19 of its 23 member ski areas had opened. At least one more member, Powderhorn Mountain Resort, opened Friday, with all its lifts operating and 60% of its terrain open.
Strautins said Friday that on Grand Mesa, the Mesa Lakes measurement site was recording snowpack at 100% of normal, with 4.7 inches of snow-water-equivalent, the amount of water contained in the snow. Elsewhere on Grand Mesa, Overland Reservoir was around 78-80% of normal.What the NRCS calls the Park Reservoir measurement site, at what’s also known as Trickle Park Reservoir, was at 97% of normal.
While snowpack brings immediate payoffs for skiers, snowmobilers and other winter enthusiasts, it’s of more long-term importance to agricultural and municipal water users once it melts and can fill reservoirs and irrigation ditches. Thanks to a strong snowpack last winter, reservoirs around the region for the most part won’t be starting out with much of a storage deficit come next spring when the runoff season gets going. Strautins said reservoir levels currently are looking pretty good, in some cases topping 100% of average. Storage in the three reservoirs in the Aspinall Unit along the Gunnison River are at about 100% of average combined.
Meanwhile, however, much of western and southern Colorado remains in drought due to a dry late summer and early fall. That drought could diminish or disappear with a strong snowpack season.
“At least we have a decent start to it,” Strautins said.
The Colorado Climate Center reported this week that even with decent snow lately, precipitation in the Gunnison River Basin was at 77% for the current water year, which started Oct. 1.
The federal Climate Prediction Center is saying there’s an above-average chance of above-average precipitation in Colorado for this month, but in its three-month outlook through February, most of western Colorado is given an equal chance of above- or below-average precipitation.
In the short-term, the existing snowpack is posing some peril. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center on Friday was forecasting moderate avalanche danger on Grand Mesa, but had a warning in place in around Gunnison and Aspen, and in the Vail-Summit County region. The danger in those regions was rated as high, based on weak, buried snowpack layers and the expectation of additional snow. The danger was rated as considerable in the Steamboat Springs/Flat Tops region.